This radical Nativity is also one of the great whodunnits of art history

On 25 October 1510 Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua, wrote a letter to her agent in Venice inquiring after a certain highly collectable item. ‘We believe that in the effects and the estate of Zorzo da Castelfranco, the painter, there exists a painting of a night scene, very beautiful and unusual.’ She thus set off one of the great whodunnits of art history: a mystery hidden inside an enigma that caused a furious 20th-century quarrel between one of the greatest connoisseurs of Renaissance art and the most powerful dealer of the age — and which has never been definitively solved. It concerns a beautiful picture, now in the National

Why Christmas sends a shiver down my spine

Does Christmas send a shiver down your spine? It should. We seek at this time of year to reclaim the magic of Christmases past. We think of snow thick on the ground. Rosy-cheeked children skating on frozen ponds. Carol services by candlelight in draughty churches. In 2020, there has been very little magic and wonder. Instead there has been sickness, death and a ban on seeing our loved ones; lost jobs and lost hope. To compensate, we feel more urgency this Christmas to seek out the magic, to find those spine-tingling moments, to reach beyond the humdrum and the daily grind. But, lovely though the fairy lights and colourful baubles

On the trail of one of the first artists to paint ordinary things

There are many marvellous things to be seen in the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Dijon. But when I paid a visit a couple of years ago (in those days you could just step on a train and do such things), it was a little picture of the Nativity that particularly caught my eye. Its date, artist and original owner are all uncertain, but its beauty and originality were clear at a glance. Here, for almost the first time in European art, the appearance of ordinary things and people were the subject of close, rapt observation. Not of course that there was anything ordinary about the Nativity itself, which was a